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Fair Deal Panel report released in Alberta

Last Updated Jun 17, 2020 at 7:19 pm MST

EDMONTON (660 NEWS) — Reading like a manifesto of demands to assert Alberta’s place in the country, a report on seeking a fair deal has been released.

The full report is available on the Government of Alberta website.

It follows months of consultations, including thousands of people at two dozen town halls, some 40,000 Albertans participating in a public engagement survey and a thousand more people polled by telephone.

Overwhelmingly, the panel found people have a negative view concerning Alberta’s position within the federation and perceive that the province is not getting a fair shake when it comes to numerous policies.

“A substantial majority of Albertans do not believe they are receiving a fair deal from the federal government. Many are angry and want the Government of Alberta to reassert its position in Confederation and minimize Ottawa’s overreach,” the panel writes in its executive summary.

The Fair Deal Panel was chaired by Oryssia Lennie, the former federal Deputy Minister of Western Economic Diversification Canada, and also included notable people such as Preston Manning, Donna Kennedy-Glans, Stephen Lougheed and the late Jason Goodstriker, a former Alberta Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, and United Conservative Party MLAs.

“(Albertans) are frustrated and disappointed at how we are treated by the federal government and other parts of Canada. They are struggling and they need help,” Lennie said.

Since the provincial election campaign in 2019, Premier Jason Kenney stated that Alberta is getting short-changed by Ottawa and financial contributions are being taken advantage of through policies such as equalization.

Upon taking power last April, Kenney announced there will be a comprehensive look at Alberta getting a fair deal and in November he appointed the panel and laid out a series of interests.

These interests included studying what could be done about equalization, establishing a provincial pension plan, creating a provincial police force to replace the RCMP, examining the prospect of a formalized provincial constitution and more.

By and large, the panel made many recommendations in favour of these interests and 25 recommendations in total.

“The report reveals a people with great love for their province and their country,” Kenney said. “But also a people who have suffered through years of economic stagnation mainly caused by bad policy choices by governments, especially the federal government policies that discriminate against our province.”

EQUALIZATION

On the first matter of equalization — which received many responses from members of the public — the panel recommends that Alberta “press strenuously for the removal” of the program and give a multi-billion dollar rebate to the province.

In addition, it recommends that Alberta push forward with a referendum on equalization asking a clear question that could read as: “Do you support the removal of Section 36, which deals with the principle of equalization, from the Constitution Act, 1982?”

But the panel notes this will not be an easy process, even if Albertans vote yes to removing that program it would require mass collaboration across the country, with talks between Alberta, other provinces and the federal government.

“The panel notes that in the event of clear approval of the question in a referendum, this would not guarantee the removal of equalization from the Constitution, or any reworking of the equalization formula. The referendum would, however, morally obligate the federal government and other provinces to come to the table and negotiate the proposed amendment to the Constitution,” they write.

Kenney said they accept the recommendation and plan to take some action.

“What Albertans cannot and will not accept is governments across the country benefiting off of that wealth and our resources, while seeking to block and impair our development of that wealth and our resources.”Kenney said a referendum on equalization is planned for 2021 after the federal government did not make any other changes to the formula to this point.

“People felt that the equalization formula as it is today, the system is not fair to Albertans,” Lennie said.

The premier said this can be a message to Ottawa.

“If they wanted to demonstrate good faith in the federation on issues like this, then they’ve got to respond on things like our basic ask for fairness of fiscal stabilization, which is reverse equalization in a manner of speaking, or by repealing or fundamentally rewriting Bill C-69,” Kenney said that this is a legitimate debate to have and the federal government can make it an easier process if they enter into the negotiations with good faith.

PENSIONS AND POLICE

In moves intended to give Alberta greater autonomy over the federal government, there are two major recommendations around establishing an Alberta Pension Plan and a provincial police force.

On the pension, Lennie said they have found Alberta contributes more to the Canada Pension Plan than other provinces and there may not be equal results.

There is a belief from the panel that an Alberta Pension Plan would deliver greater benefits to Albertans at a lower cost and Kenney said that it would require some more analysis plus it could also go to a referendum.

Kenney said Quebec has run its own pension plan and does not see a reason why Alberta cannot do the same.

The finance department will hold a detailed study on the matter, with a report coming in 2021, and if it is positive then there could be a referendum on the same day as the next municipal elections.

Establishing a provincial police force to replace the RCMP in some communities is also identified as being complex, and could cost the province more money, and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer’s office will draft a report on if it can be done by next year.

“Including a very careful cost-benefit calculation and a consideration of how this can align with timely reforms to ensure police forces are more responsive to the communities they serve,” Kenney said.

If Alberta were to end a contract with the RCMP, which is currently due to expire in 2032, they would have to give 24 months notice with the earliest possible date of severing the relationship being March 31, 2022.

In addition to a provincial police force, as was announced in earlier press conferences the province will seek to appoint a chief firearms officer who can assist with developing rules around gun ownership that prioritize the desires of hunters, sport shooters, and other “responsible gun owners.”

On a question about who actually supports these measures, Lennie said it was a summary of feelings during the engagements they had and Kenney added that there has been independent polling done by the government that shows support for the pension plan.

“(The pension plan) is something that Quebec has had successfully for six decades,” said Kenney. “I don’t understand why Albertans think we’re somehow less capable of managing our own money than Quebecers are. I frankly find that notion insulting.”

WORK WITH OTHER PROVINCES

The recommendations also include a series of positions on how Alberta can work collaboratively with other members of the federation, firstly to remove trade barriers and improve interprovincial relations when it comes to the movement of goods.

The panel adds that Alberta should pressure the federal government to enforce free trade in the country.

There is also a position made that Alberta should assert more control over who immigrates into the province, and how many.

On energy policy, Kenney noted that most other provinces side with Alberta on reducing federal influence on the development of natural resources and some different strategies will be needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is also a call to diversify the Alberta economy further, such as by focusing on emerging technology sectors but also by finding new ways to invest in the current energy sector.

They also seek to establish energy corridors through the country, in a bid to improve access for natural resources, will also be addressed through a task force led by MLA Shane Getson.

Lots of recommendations will require extensive collaboration with provinces and the federal government, such as the proposed equalization referendum, and it could take some significant negotiation to find a solution.

The panel said there should not be changes to tax collection in Alberta, although they will seek guidance from Quebec as that province seeks to collect the federal portion of income taxes as well because there is a sense that it would streamline services and make it easier for people to file their taxes.

They also do not recommend any changes to the administration of agreements that Alberta public agencies and municipalities have with Ottawa, although Kenney said he is at odds with that point and will be doing some further analysis on the subject.

The panel is also seeking some changes to Alberta’s representation in Ottawa, including adjusting the number of seats for the province in Parliament and changing the rules around Senate appointments.

Kenney was asked if the panel report opens the floodgates for constitutional changes, but he felt that it would not be too extreme to have conversations on some of these issues.

A proposal is also included on increasing Alberta’s overall presence in Ottawa by establishing more offices so they can directly lobby the federal government.

SEPARATION

The topic of Alberta separating from Canada has become a hot-button issue in the past year, and while there is little mention of it in the report itself, Lennie and Kenney responded to several questions from reporters about it.

“It was not a useful bargaining chip,” Lennie said.

“Alberta’s best bet is within confederation.”

It was noted that there were people during town hall meetings that brought up the issue, but it did not make up a significant portion of the consensus so it is not felt that this is a viable way forward for Alberta.

But Kenney said that there obviously is some frustration brewing and he does want the federal government to take their demands more seriously.

“If we were to achieve the vision of the Fair Deal Panel, we would certainly have greater autonomy within the Canadian federation. A greater and clearer exercise of the original vision of confederation from 1867. That’s actually what we’re asking for,” he said.

However, there is also one recommendation specifically about affirming Alberta’s uniqueness in the country.

The panel recommended that Alberta, in law and government policy, affirm its cultural, economic and political uniqueness to fight back against feelings that some people do not feel like they have a place in Canada.

This was more of a vague recommendation will little actions suggested right now, but it could relate to the panel noting Alberta needs to tell a story about itself around the country and enact a “charm offensive.”

Kenney added on that Minister Leela Aheer would lead the development of a strategy to determine next steps in this area.

WHAT NEXT?

The panel said they would like to see more referendums so that Albertans can make their voices heard in relation to government policy.

As many of the recommendations require collaboration from other jurisdictions, it could take a long time for some things to actually come into place.

When it comes back to energy policy, after winning an appeal over the federal carbon tax, Kenney promised more legal challenges as well to make a point that Alberta has a final say over the export of natural resources gathered within the provincial boundary.

Also, the government does not fully accept all of the recommendations and there may be some modifications from Kenney’s cabinet.

Kenney said this can act as a bit of a pressure valve against separatism, and said it all boiled down to Alberta wanting to show a desire to hold greater influence around the country.

“This is a way of saying to Ottawa: Listen to Albertans.”